Scotland’s town centres | how can planning help?

2349794581_72b8058ac7The Scottish Government’s Town Centre Review External Advisory Group is due to report to Ministers in April. I’ve been representing RTPI Scotland on the Group. Here’s my update on what the review is likely to mean for planners. This article was also published in the March 2013 edition of the Scottish Planner.

Last summer, Scottish Ministers launched a Town Centre Review to look at the challenging issue of town centre regeneration. An External Advisory Group with twenty diverse views and opinions was appointed, chaired by Malcolm Fraser of Malcolm Fraser Architects – Scotland’s answer to Mary Portas.

The role of the External Advisory Group is to bring together ideas on town centres from a whole range of perspectives – property, culture, community, retail and many others. The group’s focus is on action: what needs to happen for town centres to flourish and be more resilient. The group will report to Ministers in April. The government will then establish demonstration projects and a policy framework.

Planning is well represented in the group, with three practising planners from different backgrounds: Fraser Carlin of Heads of Planning Scotland, Alasdair Morrison of GVA, and me on behalf of RTPI Scotland. This article is written from my perspective as the RTPI representative.

For me, three areas of consensus are emerging from the External Advisory Group.

emerging thinking

town centre street by nick wright planning

Firstly, as I wrote this article in January 2013, the collapses of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster filled the headlines. But the future of our town centres will not depend solely on resuscitating retail, important though it is. Nor will our town centres be fixed solely by public realm improvements, nor solely by Business Improvement Districts, nor any single issue. Packages of actions are needed, tailored to each town centre’s context and aspirations, from Lerwick to Jedburgh.

Secondly, everyone needs to think more collaboratively, creatively and enterprisingly. The backdrop is of depressed property values, changing shopping habits and post Christie Commission public sector reform. Economic and social change is constant – and has been in our town centres for centuries. We have to encourage change in our town centres, not control it. If town centres are to succeed as places, they must respond to people’s needs.

Thirdly, the complexity of issues is incredibly challenging. The External Advisory Group is looking at living on the High Street, community development, public services in town centres, business rates, attractive environments, digital town centres and other things.

Collaboration is the only way to navigate through this complexity to consensus and action.


how can planning contribute?

I hope that even the most ardent planner agrees that planning alone cannot regenerate town centres. But we are an essential part of the mix. Our statutory land-use powers and spatial & placemaking skills are immensely useful. We also have a responsibility not to inadvertently use them to obstruct change.

Five areas are emerging where planning could complement other strands of the External Advisory Group’s thinking:


1 Stronger ‘pro town centre’ planning policy From Scottish Planning Policy to Local Development Plans, stronger planning policy should direct all ‘footfall generators’ into town centres – not just retail but sports centres, hospitals and health centres, colleges and universities, and other uses which bring footfall.

Town centres should be higher up the political agenda. Stronger ‘pro town centre’ policy should be more rigorously applied by politicians, not just on planning policy but investment and service delivery too. Why not have an “Impact on Town Centres” section in every Committee Report, just like for sustainability?

Haddington Vision Launch

2 Agreeing a direction of travel Each town centre should have an agreed direction of travel – objectives, vision or narrative for the future, depending on your language – which informs Local Development PlansCommunity Plans and individual action plans for town centres.

Critically, each town centre’s direction of travel must be developed collaboratively – which means it will be unique to that town centre. The local community in the widest sense must work together to agree the future story of their town centre: that includes businesses, planners, other public sector functions, social enterprises and residents of all ages. It is no longer enough for one group of stakeholders –
be it the business sector, local authority or residents – to impose its will on others.

Strong leadership will be required, particularly at Chief Executive level to integrate different public services. That does not mean that the public sector should dominate community and private
sector stakeholders. The public sector must work as peers with other stakeholders, leading by example. Delivering each town centre’s agreed direction of travel will require a mix of actions. We must not do “planner’s plans”, to quote Bob Reid in the last ScottishPlanner: plans which don’t integrate with Community Plans and the capital programmes of infrastructure providers.

Some actions will be physical, such as built development or public spaces – the usual stuff of planning. Others might be marketing, a youth hub, an events programme, a new development trust or Business Improvement District, or any number of other things appropriate for that town centre. There should also be an action plan explaining the delivery responsibilities of public, private and community stakeholders.

Looking tired

3 Positive planning policy, complementary fundingPlanning policy for town centres should be simple and positive. It should encourage private and social enterprise to be creative in how they fulfil their town centre’s vision. Not quite a free-for-all in town centres – limited Supplementary Guidance will be needed to protect built heritage and amenity. But the guiding principle should be to enable, not to control. Restrictive “retail only frontage” policies have had their day. If that means less retail and more residential use in a town centre, for example, that’s fine – if it fits with that town centre’s agreed direction of travel. This ‘pro-enterprise’ policy should be complemented by financial incentives and grant funding. Public sector funding for building repairs, site assembly or business investment should explicitly focus on supporting enterprise and creativity in town centres. That should include existing funding programmes like the Big Lottery and Townscape Heritage Initiative, which should also be streamlined. Funds should be targeted to town centres working collaboratively.

4 Delivering investment on priority sites and buildings Every town centre has derelict sites or vacant property which is no longer fit for purpose. Some sites may have stalled because they aren’t viable. Some of these might be so prominent that they are prioritised, through collaborative visioning, for intervention. Local authorities and regeneration companies will be expected to help deliver those developments. The suggestions earlier in this article will help make that easier (see diagram below).

Site Delivery Process

5 Evidence and learning How do we know what interventions work in town centres? No-one wants monitoring and review simply for its own sake, but there is a common call to understand which interventions work and which don’t, and to share that learning. That doesn’t mean more retail health checks: it means understanding wider social, cultural and environmental impacts of interventions. Organisations like Carnegie UK TrustCLES and Oxfam Humankind Index are doing good work in this area.

Those are the areas that the External Advisory Group is currently exploring where planning could contribute to town centre regeneration.

For the planning profession, the Town Centre Review is an opportunity to demonstrate how our skills are vital in revitalising town centres. What will be important for us to prove that in the coming years – showing how we can help people collaborate, think strategically and spatially, and bring about delivery in placemaking.

What are your reactions? The work of External Advisory Group continues until March 2013. If you have any thoughts, please comment below or email me.

subscribe to new blogposts